This Saturday, Renzo Gracie black belt Ricardo Almeida takes on the man who beat his mentor, Matt Hughes, but as the "Big Dog" insists, this fight is not about revenge...
By Martins Denis
What can a vacation do for hard workers? The quick answer is that it can provide mental and physical rest, and if you're a mixed martial artist, add to it the avoidance of sore joints while stopping any symptoms of overtraining. And when we talk about welterweight Ricardo 'Cachorrao' Almeida, who meets former two-time champion Matt Hughes in a classic wrestling vs. BJJ match, you have to include his tradition of surfing in great places around the world in searching of that inner peace.
But inner peace would be impossible for him after seeing his mentor Renzo Gracie get beat in April by the man who will face him Saturday night. And for Almeida, there would be no hesitation in his decision to fight Hughes.
"Soon after the Renzo-Hughes and Frankie Edgar-BJ Penn matches I knew I'd fight against Hughes, so no time for surfing," said Almeida. "I took some waves in New Jersey before the summer, but I didn't stop working; I haven’t stopped since the Matt Brown fight (his 170 debut in March at UFC 111). Edgar knew he'd give an immediate rematch to Penn, so we kept the work from our prior fights. After UFC 118 I intend to reschedule my plans and visit my parents in Brazil."
Coming from a successful welterweight debut against Brown in his backyard of New Jersey, Almeida felt pretty good in the new division. The way he started the beginning of the end for Brown began with his striking and he finished with a display of his Brazilian Jiu-jitsu wizardry. And if you can believe it, he says that thanks to a nutritionist, he had more weight on than in his last middleweight match against Kendall Grove in August 2009.
"Yes, I was heavier than when fought UFC 101 as a 185 pounder," he reveals. "My main concern was my knee; I injured it in 2009 and I was apprehensive, I didn't know how my knee would react. When I warmed-up, I loosened my game, dropped him with a counter-attack and subbed him with a rear naked choke."
And since the hoped for free time was replaced by a hoped for match, Almeida took advantage of the early announcement of the fight against Hughes to increase all aspects of his game for his second welterweight commitment. From April to August, he has focused on the increase of his conditioning to face the dominant former champion.
"I tried to get better physically because Hughes is very strong and likes to use his wrestling to get the advantage over his opponents. Much of my training consisted on neutralizing his game."
Physical preparation is a tough question to ask Almeida when we recall the recent performances of two different generations of Gracie family members in Renzo and Rolles in the UFC. Both gassed out and people questioned what was wrong for both in terms of efficiency when the first five minutes were over.
"Everybody gets tired you know,” said Almeida. “The problem is how to handle it with the lack of experience or ring rust that maximizes the fatigue. I believe they'll turn things around and show their real potential."
And as far as using this weekend’s bout as a grudge match, a way of avenging Renzo, Almeida doesn’t see the fight this way, choosing instead to approach it with the calm of a veteran looking to take out his opponent.
"Vengeance is a negative feeling. I try to be the best strategist possible inside the Octagon. Liking or disliking Hughes isn't going to give me the win."
"There are fighters that put their heart on the fist, but this is not my style. I prefer to concentrate myself on training and on the task of overwhelming Hughes by technical and physical aspects. The rest is only distraction. I know I'm a human being who grew up in Brazil, and our blood is hot and it influences things. I was in Renzo's corner when Hughes beat him, and I asked for the fight right after. For the fighters, the Octagon reveals strengths and weaknesses and in the moment I saw Renzo being TKO'd, I wanted to jump in and fight Hughes at that time. But as soon as the blood got cold, I tried to analyze the situation the right way. I have the chance to face a legendary MMA fighter, perhaps the best welterweight who ever fought in the Octagon. He comes from two wins over Renzo and Matt Serra, so I take this as a great opportunity and I’m not wasting my time thinking about revenge. Confucius taught me, 'Before you seek revenge, dig two graves.'"
So tossing the obvious storyline to the side, Almeida took a deep look at what Hughes has in store for him and what he has in store for Hughes.
"Hughes competes very well. He had problems with Renzo in the first round, but he kept calm, changed his techniques in the second and got the TKO in the third. Beating him is by submission or knockout, if not in those ways, he keeps coming until the last second."
To beat Hughes, who has a good percentage of victories over BJJ black belts such as Serra, Renzo, Royce, Jorge Pereira, BJ Penn, and Renato Verissimo, Almeida’s plans are not only to use his gentle art, as he knows Hughes isn't only a ground and pounder.
"Always when he faces BJJers he prefers to stand, and then when the opponent is tired he takes him down. I'm ready to fight three rounds standing or on the ground."
Without presuming the result, but wishing for the victory, Almeida just foresees the evolution of his name in the welterweight division.
"I'm a competitive guy, but my current journey is to get better. This is my goal between fights. I believe in my technique and in my potential, but when I see the GSP's wrestling, Jon Fitch's endurance and Thiago Alves' Muay Thai, I think I still have a lot to evolve."